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Stuckart backs warming center plan, while Woodward questions city’s planning

Christina Curtis, 32, and David Rova visit the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Christina Curtis, 32, and David Rova visit the Cannon Street shelter, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The candidates for Spokane mayor are once again in deep disagreement over the city’s response to homelessness, this time over a new plan to expand warming centers for the homeless this winter.

The multiphase warming center plan won the robust support of Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who characterized the more than $1 million the City Council authorized on Monday as a “necessary investment.”

But his opponent for mayor’s job in the November election, Nadine Woodward, called this week’s developments a result of “terrible planning” and lamented their cost – even though it was developed and presented to the City Council by the administration of Mayor David Condon, who has backed Woodward.

In a city election cycle that has featured visible homelessness as its central issue, the impact on voters of Spokane’s latest plan to address homelessness remains to be seen. Ballots have already landed in mailboxes and votes will be counted in less than two weeks.

The plan approved by the City Council this week is centered on the 60-day lease of a building at 527 S. Cannon St. that will provide temporary shelter for up to 120 people, 24 hours a day. The deal includes an option to purchase the building for $395,000 and convert it into a permanent emergency homeless shelter.

Additionally, the city has directed funding to several existing service providers to increase warming center capacity this winter.

With $496,000 in additional funds from the city, Catholic Charities is expected open a temporary warming center at its Rising Strong campus near Spokane Falls Community College to accommodate up to 45 people due to capacity issues at Family Promise, the city’s only emergency shelter for families. For women, the council approved expenditures of $155,000 and $28,000 to expand the service and hours of the Women’s Hearth and Hope House.

Woodward criticized the amount of funding the council approved, saying the city’s action was “last-minute, (with) no planning and on its own,” with no contribution from regional partners like Spokane County or Spokane Valley. It “goes against everything that I’ve been talking about when it comes to addressing this issue through collaboration and planning,” she added.

“This is the most expensive way to house people,” Woodward said.

In the case of Catholic Charities, for example, Stuckart said it was “totally efficient and totally smart when you have 50 family members on the street,” and argued the Rising Strong program has a track record of success.

“She has offered no solutions other than she is going to go arrest addicts and put them in treatment,” Stuckart said of Woodward, adding that “her inexperience is showing.”

Asked what alternative action she would take to alleviate the current need for shelter as winter approaches, Woodward said, “I’m not even going to work myself out of this because I wouldn’t allow the city” to get to the position it’s in now.

The council authorized the city to enter into a contract with Catholic Charities, but the details are still in the final stages of negotiation and planning, said Dawn Kinder, managing director of Rising Strong.

The city’s plan calls for a temporary warming center to be opened in an unused building on the campus of Rising Strong, a family-focused treatment program operated by Catholic Charities. The warming center would be staffed and operated independently from the Rising Strong program.

Kinder said it is “generally more expensive than people anticipate” to provide shelter, and that “any kind of 24/7 operation is not cheap.” With that said, Kinder added that the outcomes Catholic Charities has in rehousing people make it “far cheaper than other options.”

“Our mission is to support the most vulnerable among us, so we’re not going to shy away from that,” Kinder said.

Stuckart and Woodward have sparred for six months not only about how to reduce homelessness in the long term but also how to meet the city’s immediate need for temporary warming centers that will prevent those experiencing homelessness from being left out in the cold this winter.

Woodward has advocated that the city hold off on buying any permanent shelters, and that it be open to all options for temporary warming centers in the meantime. Earlier this month, she suggested the concept of a tent city, which would feature what she described as heated, military-style tents.

Woodward said she only brought up the idea of a tent city because it was an idea proposed to her by a local nonprofit, and that the conversation surrounding that comment had “gotten out of hand.”

Stuckart quickly pounced, criticizing the tent city concept for being financially inefficient. A similar project in Tacoma cost about $900,000 to build, according to the Seattle Times.

For Stuckart, Monday’s council action validated his argument that buying an existing building would be more financially efficient – and effective – than erecting a tent city. Though the South Cannon building would undoubtedly require capital investment, Stuckart noted that city officials roughly estimate the work to cost about one-third of the purchase price.

“It does take care of the short-term problem and maybe makes the tent city comment even more irrelevant or laughable. We’re getting a building that can hold 120 people for $395,000,” Stuckart said.

Woodward questioned why the action came just two weeks before a city election. The vote occurred on the same day it was proposed by city staff.

“I think this was played right the way Stuckart wanted it. It’s just really unfortunate the way that this has all turned out. We do need to provide beds for people in the wintertime, we need to get people off of the street, but this particular way … is the wrong way,” Woodward said.

As for proximity of the vote to the election, Stuckart said the council has been asking for a new shelter for more than a year.

“We would have loved to have had it done a year ago, so this wasn’t an election issue at all,” Stuckart said.

Stuckart also addressed the rapid process leading to Monday’s vote. Although the council passed the plan just hours after it was unveiled at a finance committee meeting, Stuckart noted the council recently passed a resolution calling for exactly this sort of plan.

“That was like crystal clear for the last month,” Stuckart said. “To wait would’ve meant we’re waiting to put people in shelter, and that again is heartless. It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody.”

Woodward argued that the city’s approach to providing the homeless shelter for the winter should have been planned by now, and that the “the people in charge, Ben, the City Council, did not get anything done when it should have.”

She did not mention Mayor David Condon, who is responsible for directing staff to implement a homeless response plan and has endorsed Woodward’s campaign for mayor.

The city should have been talking with local partners sooner and ensuring their support for a regional approach to providing shelter, Woodward said.

In the second phase of its plan, the city hopes to provide Truth Ministries with funding to increase its capacity by 50 for adult men every night. The current estimated cost is $175,000.

Woodward expressed concern that, as part of the agreement, Truth Ministries had agreed to lower its barriers. The shelter will waive its nightly fee to guests and suspend its requirement that they be sober. Woodward worried about “jeopardizing” the sobriety of those who rely on the shelter’s sober environment.

“This is a nonprofit that has operated at $50,000 a year on its own, with rules and accountability. Now it’s found itself in a position of accepting city money and it’s lowering its rules,” Woodward said.

Stuckart met with Truth Ministries and toured the facility on Tuesday.

“They are more than willing to lower the barrier to house people because they’re good Christians. They want to house more people,” Stuckart said.

Whether he wins or loses his bid to become mayor next month, Stuckart will still be in the council president’s chair when the 60-day lease expires in December. And whether or not the incoming council president or mayor has signaled opposition to purchasing the building, Stuckart said he plans to carry through with it.

“We’d be turning people out on the streets, and I don’t think that’s a moral thing to do,” Stuckart said, noting that it’s not just council members but also city staff who support the plan.

Though it changes the scope of services available to the homeless this winter, Stuckart said he wasn’t sure if Monday’s action would impact the election. He noted that the candidates aren’t scheduled for any more forums and won’t be discussing the issue one-on-one.

Stuckart acknowledges that new city leadership could determine to abandon plans for a long-term shelter at the site.

“That would be heartbreaking to me, but that could happen,” Stuckart said.

Council president

Cindy Wendle watched Monday’s City Council meeting and struggled to keep up with all that was happening. The warming center funding plan was not listed on the council’s legislative agenda – it was an emergency addition that evolved throughout the day. The lease-to-buy agreement wasn’t even introduced until shortly before the council’s 6 p.m. meeting.

“I’m looking forward to seeing more of the details,” said Wendle, who is challenging Councilman Breean Beggs, who voted for the plan, to become the next City Council president.

Wendle called the new warming center a good opportunity and noted that it helps address the city’s immediate need. But in the long term, she said the city would continue to have to analyze the details. The finer points would determine whether Wendle, who manages commercial real estate as co-owner of Northtown Square shopping plaza, would support purchasing the building.

“That depends on that particular agreement,” Wendle said.

The city also would have to look at factors such as the level of improvements the building requires.

“There’s things to make sure we look at before we just jump right in and are owners,” Wendle said.

Like Stuckart, Beggs said he expects to support the city’s purchase of the Cannon building, regardless of the priorities of incoming leadership. He noted that city staff have been considering purchasing the building for much of the last year.

“It sounds like a reasonable plan at this point,” Beggs said. “I’m glad we have 60 days to think about that a little bit more.”

Beggs noted that the plan presented by the administration on Monday matched the policy the council laid out in a resolution it recently passed, imploring the mayor to open a 24/7 shelter for the homeless.

“We’ve done a really good job fiscally, so we have money to do it out of our savings that we’ve created,” Beggs said.

Wendle and Beggs both commended city staff members, who have scrambled to piece together a network of warming centers for the winter.

“I’m not sure how the logjam got undone, but I’m super grateful that it is. I think we can say within two weeks a big problem will be alleviated, and that just a week ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you when that would happen,” Beggs said.

Beggs pointed to Monday’s action as an example of the council and mayor working well together.

As for whether the plan will have any impact on the election, Beggs isn’t sure.

“I think it’s a little close to the election to change anything significantly. I think most people have made up their minds and what they’re looking for,” Beggs said.

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